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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Times Reveals How the White House is Gaming the Sequester

The New York Times carries several good articles on the sequester today (in particular, Jackie Calmes has a very good account of the two parties' roles in crafting it), but the following paragraph, buried in the middle of this report caught my eye:

"Congress might be able to pass a bill giving agencies more discretion in carrying out the budget cuts. But that is opposed by the White House because officials fear that such a change would give lawmakers a false sense that they had done much to ease the pain of the cuts, when in fact, budget officials say, little would have changed."

So, there it is.  Contrary to the usual perception that Congress can't get its act together, because (it is typically presented) of GOP ideological extremists, here you have the New York Times, which is often just a printer hooked up to the White House communications machine, reporting that (a) Congress might be able to agree on something, which (b) might mitigate the adverse effects of the sequester, while (c) actually reducing unnecessary spending and improving government efficiency, but (d) the supposedly open-to-compromise, can't-we-all-reason-together White House is opposed to that kind of a common sense resolution, because it wants to maximize "the pain of the cuts".  I assume its desire to maximize pain is not out of an intrinsic misanthropy, but just a political gambit.  You couldn't have a more telling example, when the Times itself is reporting, of the bad faith behind the White House's approach.  

Imagine if we had an executive who said, "I'd love to root out the 2% of our spending that is most wasteful - just give me the flexibility to do it in the best way possible."  Although some special interests would oppose that, wouldn't a consensus develop behind that?  Instead, we have one whose approach seems to be "I sign laws that had bipartisan support, then try to blame the other guy so that my party can win the next election and do what we really want without taking into account the taxpayers that they represent."  

The same article lays out a similarly revealing dialogue with the Secretary of Agriculture (of course, at the very end of the article; this is the Times, after all) where he insists he has to furlough meat inspectors, even though to do so may violate a different federal law.  An executive acting in good faith to carry out both laws ought to construe the sequester not to violate other federal laws, and should implement cuts in a way that avoids such conflict, i.e., cut something else a little more. But no, we have an administration that is committed to implementing the sequester so as to create as much difficulty as possible, solely for political purposes, so the Secretary is pretending to be nothing more than an automaton holding a meat cleaver.  Suppose there were to be a meat contamination; would the media blame the GOP as Obama hopes, or would someone blame Obama and Vilsack for deliberately structuring the cuts to create the environment for a problem to arise?  Quite a gamble, although the history of the media's approach to this issue suggests it may be one where they have the odds on their side. 

I can only hope that more journalists would focus on the bad faith of the White House's approach, and help create an environment for common sense and good faith to prevail, and one in which risks of the kind Vilsack is courting are avoided.